China has launched a new education plan to encourage elite students to study "basic" subjects to improve the country's science and technology capabilities.
According to the Strong Base Plan released by the Ministry of Education on Wednesday, 36 leading Chinese universities - including Peking, Tsinghua and Fudan - will select outstanding high-school graduates who are "willing to serve the country's significant strategic demands".
Many of these subjects - such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology - have proved unpopular with students who prefer majors such as computing and finance that will improve their earning potential after graduation.
The ministry said the plan would focus on "preparing students for areas including high-end chips and software, intelligence in science and technology, new materials, advanced production and state security".
It will also try to increase the numbers studying humanities subjects such as philosophy, history and ancient Chinese.
It is not clear how many students will be enrolled in total this year. But those who sign up for these courses will receive favourable treatment, including a mentor tutoring system, higher chances of being recommended for graduate school and be given priority when applying for scholarships and government-sponsored overseas studies, said the ministry on its website.
The authorities will also encourage key state laboratories, cutting-edge science centres and synergy creative centres to involve these students in their research projects.
A motivation system will be established so as to improve students' "sense of honour and mission".
The students enlisted in the scheme were not permitted to change their majors, the ministry said.
"The highlight of this plan is that it is clearly to serve the country's significant strategic demands," Qu Zhenyuan, former director of the China Association of Higher Education, told China National Radio. "Amid the macro environment with increasing external uncertainties and more and more fierce competition for science, technology and talents, Strong Base Plan answers the need to nurture top creative talents."
Zhang Duanhong, a professor from the Institute of Higher Education of Tongji University in Shanghai, said: "In the past, mainland universities paid more attention to the training of professionals as China's economy started to boom and needed many professionals.
"But in the current stage, we hope China can have more original innovations that could change humanity's and the Earth's destiny. And as is well known, all great discoveries and innovations originate from basic subjects."
Zhang said it was important to raise public awareness of the importance of these subjects for scientific and technological development, but the courses were not seen as attractive to students.
"Now the state authority wants to send a signal that learning basic subjects, or liberal education, is helpful for a person's future development. This is what we learn from foreign world-class universities," he said.
Students interested in the plan first have to sit the country's university entrance exam, known as the gaokao, in June and then take a test set by the universities.
But a high school physics teacher in Yancheng, Jiangsu, said he doubted whether the Strong Base Plan would prove effective.
"I know our country hopes to support the basic subjects. However, graduates of these majors are not paid well," said the teacher who only wanted to be identified by his surname Su.
"Perhaps some students who want to pursue their dreams (in basic subjects) or those from wealthy families will respond to the state's call. Most families will remain unconvinced."
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